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Edgar Allan Poe and a more modern mystery

January 24th, 2012 by admin

Edgar Allan Poe smiles - Library JournalNow that the 202nd birthday of Edgar Allan Poe has come and gone, it may be time for a short reflection on what was being talked about this past January 19th.

For one, the word, "Nevermore," was used a lot. See, for example, these articles from the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and NPR. Even the Huffington Post's piece on the defunct devotee utilized the pun, if only in the article’s tag line. Our favorite, courtesy of Library Journal, is a doctored image of the writer, which includes a radically unorthodox smile.

Yet regardless of the focus one fan's failure to show up to the literary giant's grave with his or her usual offering, there is a tone in the media's coverage of Poe that rings true for all faithful readers: Poe’s legacy reigns "evermore."

There are many reasons that Edgar Allan Poe and his corpus will live on, and in his new book Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe (to be published in March), Poe's own ancestor Harry Lee Poe contends that one of these such reasons deals with the writer’s fascination with the universe’s greater mysteries.

"Many people know of Edgar Allan Poe, but almost everything that people know of him is wrong," Harry Lee Poe writes in Evermore. In celebration of the book’s pending publication, here is a short excerpt from Evermore.

Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe

Chapter 1: The Problem of Edgar Allan Poe

In the popular imagination, Edgar Allan Poe had a tragic life. Many people think of Poe as a figure who brooded over the tragedy of his life, and certainly he had his episodes of despair. The human condition, however, brings tragedy to each of us in our own time and in our own way. This common lot of humanity raises the problem of suffering. People in every culture and every age have pon­dered why we experience suffering and what, if anything, might be the meaning of life.

As we consider Poe's life, we see many moments of suffering or pain associated most often with the loss of a beloved person. The losses came with death, as with his mother, brother, foster mother, patroness, and wife. They also came through betrayal, as with his foster father and the fiancée of his youth (through her father's betrayal). In the midst of pain and loss, however, Poe knew vast periods of Love and Beauty. While many great thinkers through the ages have pondered the problem of suffering, very few have examined it alongside the positive problems of Love and Beauty. Even less do we find people who recognize the interrelatedness of these issues alongside the problem of Justice.

In order to ask why people suffer, we must first posit a universe of fairness and order in which things may be judged to be just or unjust. The problem of suffering questions the Justice of the universe, yet one cannot question the Justice of the universe unless the universe first presents to us the notion of Justice. It is a problem. Throughout his writing, whether in comic tales, stories of detection, horror, or science fiction, Poe continually pondered the negative problem of suffering alongside the positive problems of Love, Beauty, and Justice.1 He also explored these ideas in his poetry and in his hundreds of essays and reviews.

One of the cardinal features of Poe's theory of writing, both for fiction and poetry, involved his conviction that the artist should strive to create a "unity of effect" in which all the elements of poetry or all the elements of plot combine seamlessly as a consistent whole to accomplish the purposed effect upon the audience. In Eureka, that mysterious prose poem/essay on the material and spiritual universe published in 1848, Poe concluded that suffering, Beauty, Love, and Justice come together in a meaningful and rational way in the unity of effect intended by the "author" of the universe. A fierce opponent of Descartes' culturally successful project to separate mind and body, matter and spirit, Poe argued in Eureka for the continuity of art and science and for the continuity of matter and spirit across the frontier of death. He recognized the imagination as the human faculty that forms the bridge across this seeming divide.

These suggestions, however, represent an alternative reading of Poe that cuts across the grain of several traditional readings of Poe. Benjamin Fisher has said that there are at least forty-nine ways to look at a work by Poe, and this reading of Poe's total work differs from the approach that a literary scholar would take.2 It differs in method and style, for it does not approach Poe with questions of literary criticism but with questions of theology and philosophy.

We will most likely never have a common, much less a consensus, reading of Poe. Part of this situation has come about because of the way Poe invited his audience to participate in his tales and poems. He succeeded remarkably well at creating his "unity of effect" with his readers. The horror tales create an effect of horror.

His comic tales create an effect of comedy. "The Raven" creates an effect of somber melancholy. Because of the involvement of the reader in the stories, the reader also participates in their interpretation. This dynamic results in the discovery of layers of meaning that Poe most likely never intended but that his writing evokes in the reader. One reason Poe's writings work this way is because of what Poe leaves unstated. (This artistic skill represents a norm of polite Southern conversation in which the most outrageous scandals may be discussed in the presence of children without them ever knowing.) He leaves many things to the imagination. Different imaginations see different horrors. At critical moments, when one would normally expect a detailed description of Beauty or of horror, Poe evokes, instead of describes, through the means of the mood he has created. He leaves it to the reader to form images, connections, and implications from their own imaginations.

In Eureka Poe resolved for himself what kind of universe exists. In contradiction with all the philosophy and science of his age and for the next century, Poe saw an expanding universe in which time and space form a single reality. He saw a universe in which the laws of nature did not exist until the Big Bang. He saw all of this and much more because of science. He also saw a God for whom "the universe is the perfect plot" -- a plot in which pain, Love, Beauty, and Justice fit together and finally make sense.

Re-imagining Edgar Allan Poe

In order to explore this reading of Poe's works, it will be helpful to re-imagine Poe. In the summer of 1849 Edgar Allan Poe returned home to Richmond, where he had spent almost twenty years of his young life. During that year, he had renewed a relationship with the Southern Literary Messenger, the magazine in Richmond where Poe had held his first job as an editor. Flush with fame from writing "The Rave" and restored to financial prosperity through his lectures that earned him three months' wages in a single evening, Poe returned to his hometown with honor and praise. At the height of his poetic powers, he wrote "Eldorado," "Annabel Lee," and "The Bells" in the year of his return.

During the previous year, Poe had published Eureka, his self-avowed magnum opus and the single work upon which he based all of his hopes for intellectual recognition and reputation. He returned to Richmond with renewed confidence in his dream of establishing a national magazine of his own, for as the nation began to recover from the crippling series of recessions that had so stricken his own financial position, Poe began to acquire the necessary backing for his journal. Finally, Poe returned to Richmond to renew the affection that had once defined his relationship with Elmira Royster Shelton, a recently widowed lady of Richmond who had been Poe's childhood sweetheart. By the end of the summer, they were engaged to be married.

As the idyllic year faded into fall, Poe left Richmond for New York, where he went to bring his aunt Maria Clemm, the mother of his dead wife Virginia, back to Richmond for the wedding. Unfortunately, Poe died on the way to New York while passing through Baltimore.


1 For an alternative, and certainly more conventional reading of Poe, Kenneth Silverman has summarized the critical identification of Poe’s core preoccupations in his tales as "their study of incest, doubling, and other aspects of human psychology; their satire of Romantic and Gothic convention; their formalist manner and self-reflexive interest in the process of reading and writing; their fascination with illusion and deception; and not least in their creation of horror and disgust." See Kenneth Silverman, introduction to New Essays on Poe's Major Tales (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 15. Surely Poe utilizes all that Silverman mentions, but they are the means by which he pursues his questions. Such a wide spectrum of diverse matters seems to cut against the idea of a "preoccupation" which, by its very nature, suggests a more narrow focus.

2 Barbara Cantalupo, "Interview with Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV," The Edgar Allan Poe Review 8, no. 1 (2007): 60.

If you would like to request a copy of Evermore for review or schedule an interview with the author, please contact Billy Collins at Billy_Collins@baylor.edu or 254-405-3837.

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